As China has increasingly been at the centre of the attentions of the United States Military since the beginning of the Barak Obama administration and initiation of the Pivot to Asia initiative, the assets of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force have with growing frequency been compared to their counterparts in the U.S. Air Force as the new pacing challenge. The capabilities of Chinese combat aircraft improved very significantly during the 2010s, and while at the beginning of the Obama years the discrepancy in performance between top end Chinese fighter and their U.S. counterparts was very significant favouring the Americans by 2020 this increasingly appeared to no longer be the case. A notable indication of the fast growing sophistication of Chinese fighters came in 2014 when the United States Congress’ U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission concluded in a report that China’s J-10 fighter could pose a peer level challenge in air to air combat to the F-15 Eagle. The F-15 is by far the most widely used air superiority fighter in the U.S. and Japanese fleets, and makes up approximately 85 percent of all Western-built heavyweight fighters in service with America and its allies. It is one of very few Western fighters with the high endurance needed for effective operations in Northeast Asia. Having first flow in 1972 and entered service in 1976, the F-15 is still in production with over 100 on order by the U.S. Air Force alone.
Former Highly Qualified Expert at the Pentagon serving with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army, Acquisition, Logistics & Technology Kris Osborn referred to the J-10 as an equivalent to the F-15, highlighting that the U.S. Air Force had perceived it to be a considerable threat to its Eagles which could potentially surpass them in air to air combat. He stated: “The U.S. Air Force is vigorously upgrading the 1980s-era F-15 fighter by giving new weapons and sensors in the hope of maintaining air-to-air superiority over the Chinese J-10.” He cited an Air Force program costing half a billion dollars to provide some upgrades to the F-15 fleet as a means by which the service sought to respond to the challenge the J-10 presented. Comparisons between the two fighters are particularly notable because the J-10 is very far from being a Chinese equivalent to the F-15, as it is a lightweight single engine fighter where the F-15 is a heavyweight twin engine design with an operational cost close to twice as high and manufacturing costs around ten times as high. The fact that the J-10 can nevertheless be considered a challenge to the F-15 highlights the lighter newer fighter’s sophistication which compensates for the advantages inherent to heavyweights like the F-15.
When the congressional report referring to the J-10 emerged in 2014 the most capable J-10 variant to have flown was the J-10B, which had relatively standard fourth generation capabilities. Against the most capable F-15s in service – a small number fielding AESA radars in the U.S. Air Force – the J-10 would have had a significant disadvantage in situational awareness. Its network centric warfare capabilities and air to air engagement range of around 100km using PL-10 missiles were comparable to those of the F-15, although the American Eagles could carry more missiles. Nevertheless, against many older F-15s the J-10B could have had significant advantages. The majority of Japan’s approximately 200 F-15s still relied on obsolete AIM-7 Sparrow air to air missiles, which due to their lack of active radar guidance and limited 70km range would be comfortably outmatched. In the U.S. Air Force F-15s more widely used the more modern 100km range AIM-120C missile, but the majority still used old mechanically scanned array radars which could have been at a disadvantage against the J-10B’s more modern phased array radar. Thus the extent to which the J-10 challenged the F-15 depended heavily on which F-15 variant was flying.
The challenge posed by the J-10C to the F-15’s ability to assert air superiority over East Asia had growing significantly by 2020. The introduction of the J-10C from 2018, which by the end of 2020 had an estimated 120-140 in service, revolutionised the capabilities of the lightweight fighter adding an AESA radar, thrust vectoring engines for extreme manoeuvrability, a reduced radar cross section, and access to PL-15 and PL-10 air to air missiles. The PL-15 had an estimated 200-300km engagement range and used an AESA radar for guidance, which no American air to air missile has yet to do, while the PL-10 is considered possibly the world’s foremost short ranged missile and paired with helmet mounted sights to engage targets at extreme angles well beyond those of the much older AIM-9 missile relied on by American fighters. The J-10C ensured an overwhelming advantage over most F-15s using older AIM-120C or AIM-7 missiles and older sensor suites at both visual and beyond visual ranges. While some modernised F-15s deployed AIM-120D missiles from the mid-late 2010s, these lacked the PL-15’s AESA radar or long range and could engage targets only 160-180km away.
As a result of considerable U.S. investments in modernising the F-15, most notably with the F-15EX program, the J-10C is not likely to offer a guarantee of superiority as new Eagle variants will boast more powerful sensors. Although deploying less capable air to air missiles, the F-15EXs can carry over three times as many on their much larger airframes. The advantage of a heavyweight design means the F-15EX, which first flew in February 2021, will enjoy some important advantages over the J-10C in beyond visual range combat most notably that of a much larger sensor suite. At closer ranges, however, the J-10C’s thrust vectoring engines and PL-10 missies will ensure that combat is very one sided. As a lightweight relatively low cost fighter the J-10C’s success in leaving the large majority of F-15s obsolete is a considerable achievement. For combat with the latest F-15 variants, however, China’s PLA Air Force will likely rely on much more capable heavyweight fighters from similar weight ranges to the American Eagle such as the J-16, which combines similar avionics and the same missiles as the J-10C with a much heavier more potent airframe, larger sensor suite, greater flight performance and longer range. Coming from the same weight range as the F-16 or Japanese F-2, the J-10C’s ability to effectively ‘punch above it weight’ and seriously challenge F-15s is a strong indicator of how quickly Chinese combat aviation has advanced and why U.S. and allied air superiority over the Western Pacific can hardly be taken for granted.